San Jose residents will be able to dine outdoors at their favorite restaurants through next year.
With pre-pandemic indoor dining not expected to return anytime soon, the San Jose City Council unanimously extended its popular Al Fresco outdoor dining and business program on Tuesday, as the region deals with another COVID variant.
The extension allows restaurants and other businesses to operate on closed public streets through June, and outdoors on private property through next December. Officials are exploring ways to make the program permanent.
“I’m glad we’re able to continue this going forward,” Councilmember Dev Davis said. “It’s proved to be an invaluable asset to small businesses and really a lifeline.”
The city began its Al Fresco program in mid-2020, allowing hundreds of businesses to operate outdoors to bypass indoor dining restrictions. The program received a few extensions, including one in March that was set to expire at the end of the year.
According to Blage Zelalich, the city’s acting deputy director of business development, San Jose has “a pretty good spread” of businesses participating in the program.
“We’re seeing people do it officially and unofficially throughout the city,” Zelalich said.
The outdoor dining program, first proposed by Davis and Mayor Sam Liccardo, was initially supposed to last just a few months. As its popularity grew, the number of extensions and businesses grew as well. The program went from allowing restaurants to occupy closed-down streets and parking lots, to other businesses such as barbershops, salons, gyms and casinos.
“It’s good for some businesses that are very small inside, they need that,” said Jennifer Echeverri, owner of Habana Cuba in downtown San Jose. “When we were closed 100% and everyone needed to stay six feet apart, the program helped us.”
However, Echeverri said it was difficult losing parking spots filled up by tables and chairs. Throughout the year, she also dealt with the restaurant’s outdoor tents being vandalized or stolen.
“It’s not like it didn’t come with problems, but the city meant well,” she told San José Spotlight.
Certain streets, such as San Pedro and Post streets downtown and Coronado Avenue near Edenvale in South San Jose, have been closed to traffic under the program.
Councilmembers discussed ways the city could choose which streets to close for outdoor dining and shopping.
“It seems to me, there are particular areas that just seem natural to keep the street closed,” Councilmember Pam Foley said.
Discussions with business owners and stakeholders about whether to keep certain streets closed are ongoing, according to Zelalich.
The city is working with the Knight Foundation to build structures for customers to sit in while dining outdoors, known as parklets. Officials are also exploring lifting minimum parking requirements, allowing businesses to change their parking lots to outdoor dining spaces. City officials are expected to return with a report on minimum parking requirements early next year.
Councilmember Maya Esparza asked city officials to consider more safety measures to prevent traffic accidents when parking spaces are converted to dining areas.
“I don’t want to lose sight of safety moving forward because this (program) is a wonderful thing,” Esparza said. “But what would be a fender bender normally becomes tragic.”
According to city documents, 136 businesses are registered with the Al Fresco program. Of those, 35 have permission to operate in parking lots and 12 can operate on a closed street.
“One of the valuable lessons learned is the value of Al Fresco,” said Nancy Klein, city director of economic development and cultural affairs. “It helped sustain our small business community and it helps to enhance placemaking in San Jose.”